On the first day of classes, protests greet charter school students sharing the campus

 By Gary Walker

ICEF Vista Academy students faced Friends of Stoner Avenue Elementary protestors on Monday as they made their way to class for the first time

ICEF Vista Academy students faced Friends of Stoner Avenue Elementary protestors on Monday as they made their way to class for the first time

For the second time in less than two years, a group of Stoner Avenue Elementary School parents and neighbors has picketed outside the school to protest the use of classrooms to accommodate charter school students.

More than 30 people convened at the Del Rey school’s side entrance on Monday morning, the first day of classes for kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade students at Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF) Vista Academy.

The charter school now occupies nine classrooms at Stoner that it leases from LAUSD under Proposition 39, a voter-approved state initiative that requires school districts to lease vacant or under-utilized classroom space to charter schools.

During the protest, ICEF students wearing black and white uniforms moved from classroom to classroom under the watchful eyes of teachers as charter parents organized and distributed back-to-school supplies.

Stoner Avenue Elementary students lost an orchestra room, a speech therapy classroom and a room that teachers planned to use as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) laboratory, said Friends of Stoner Elementary President Adam Benitez.

“[ICEF] is taking a lot of resources away from our kids. It feels like we’re being cut off at the knees,” said Benitez, whose two daughters attend Stoner.

A representative for ICEF said that the increasingly common practice of co-locating charter school facilities on traditional public school campuses requires a broader conversation about how educational resources are allocated — a question best addressed by LAUSD officials.

“We’re focused on making sure that our students have a positive first day of school,” ICEF spokeswoman Michel Schneider said.

LAUSD Charter Schools Director José Cole-Gutíerrez said the district recognizes the passions surrounding education, especially co-locations.

“LAUSD remains committed to working with all of our parents, students and community partners to foster a safe and conducive learning environment for all of our students,” he said. “We understand that there may be strong feelings from some members of the community about co-locations and reiterate that California law requires that public school facilities be shared fairly by all public school students.”

ICEF Vista Academy also maintains third- through eighth-grade classrooms at St. Gerard Majella School on Inglewood Boulevard in Del Rey.

Following a similar rally staged by the Friends of Stoner at St. Gerard Majella School, relations have gone from chilly to downright contentious.

Late into Monday’s protest at Stoner, an ICEF security guard who did not give his name pressured a member of the public who had taken photos of protesters and school activities from the sidewalk to delete those images.

“We had a complaint about concerns of child pornography,” the security guard said.

Benitez said such behavior is symptomatic of the rapidly deteriorating relations between his group and the charter school.

“It’s clear that they’re trying to intimidate us,” Benitez said.

Benitez and his supporters have been battling charter school co-locations at Stoner since 2013. In October of that year, Benitez’s brother José Benitez, an LAUSD employee, led a similar protest against Citizens of the World charter school occupying several classrooms at Stoner.

Citizens of the World applied to remain at Stoner for the 2014-15 school year but received space at other campuses after filing that application past deadline.

Adam Benitez had threatened a lawsuit against ICEF over filing its paperwork a day after deadline but now says he’s unlikely to pursue it, largely due to the cost.

LAUSD extended the paperwork deadline for Proposition 39 applications because its online application system had crashed on deadline day, preventing legitimate filings before the deadline.

Irma Delgado, a longtime Del Rey resident who volunteers at Stoner, said she senses hostility from the charter parents, likely due to such protests.

“There’s been no communication with us from them. We’re sharing a school, but they don’t seem to want to meet us halfway on anything,” said Delgado, who attended Stoner as a child.

ICEF’s Schneider said the charter school is working with Stoner Avenue Elementary Principal James Stapleton to smooth out potential obstacles.

“But right now we’re focusing on the children and their education,” she said.

Thom Taylor, a member of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, said he’s disheartened that ICEF and Friends of Stoner have not been able to mend their differences despite an offer by the council to mediate.

“I was concerned how the protest could affect the children, who probably didn’t understand what was happening,” Taylor said.

Benitez, who grew up in Del Rey, said the fight against the co-location will continue.

“Our next battle is on Nov. 1, when LAUSD receives new Prop. 39 applications,” he said. “We have to keep fighting. If we do nothing, our kids will be left behind.”